American Black Cherry, or Prunus serotina, has been a traditional favorite of furniture makers and millworking. This domestic species is far from ideal for exterior applications or heavily punished surfaces, like flooring, but its medium hardness makes it easy to work with. When Europeans first settled in North America, they recognized the benefits of this now-popular species. While Walnut was being exported for cabinetry, Cherry began being used here in the “New World” for everyday Shaker-style furniture.
Sometimes referred to as “Poor Man’s Manhogany,” Europeans have been known to turn up their noses on this plentiful tree that grows throughout Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley. However, from the late 1700s through today, furniture makers have been utilizing Cherry for a variety of styles and finding it a versatile and beautiful species for such use. Cherry is easy to come by in widths between 6 and 8 inches; widths up to 12 inches are available, but wider boards often include sap wood along the edges. Typical lengths range from 8 to 12 feet.
Cherry’s medium hardness ranks as 950 on the Janka scale, similar to that of Walnut. Many woodworkers find this trait ideal for workability, since the wood is not so hard that it easily blunts the edges of tools, nor is the wood so soft that it won’t hold find details and crisp joinery. Power tools require a constant feed rate, due to the relative ease of burning Cherry, though, and table saw cuts will require hand-planing or sanding. All in all, consistency and reliability make Cherry a great pick.
In addition to its optimal hardness for furniture making, properly dried Cherry has a reputation for predictability and little movement. Specifically, seasonal tangential shrinkage, across the grain, maxes out at around 7%, making it more reliable than other domestic hardwoods such as Maple, Oak, Poplar, or Walnut.
While many find Cherry attractive for the warm brown coloring it develops after oxidation, its smooth, closed pore grain pattern also works in its favor. While some prefer wood species with more pronounced grain, others like the more mellow look of Cherry. The dark pitch pockets that occur throughout Cherry add character, as does strategically placed creamy sapwood that darkens over time.
Cherry’s smooth grain might lead the novice woodworker to believe it will finish easily; however, the soft fibers can lead to a blotchy look instead of the consistent look that many value. Priming with Shellac or a similar product can help achieve a uniform color and sheen, by helping control absorption. For those who value character over consistency, curly or figured Cherry with wavy grain patterns may be more desirable. Crotch sections of sapwood and heartwood or Birdseye Cherry can make for an attention-getting look.
For the novice or expert woodworker who cares about the details, Cherry is a must-try species for your next project.
J. Gibson McIlvain Company
Since 1798, when Hugh McIlvain established a lumber business near Philadelphia, the McIlvain family has been immersed in the premium import and domestic lumber industry. With its headquarters located just outside of Baltimore, the J. Gibson McIlvain Company (www.mcilvain.com) is one of the largest U.S. importers of exotic woods.
As an active supporter of sustainable lumber practices, the J. Gibson McIlvain Company has provided fine lumber for notable projects throughout the world, including the White House, Capitol building, Supreme Court, and the Smithsonian museums.
Learn more about the lumber industry
- African hardwood import dynamics
- How is the government shutdown affecting exotic lumber?
- Genuine Mahogany grades are dropping and not due to deforestation
Image credits: Top by OSCAR/Fotolia.